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High Court Turns Down Case on Tobacco Dangers

Last Updated 11:41 a.m. ET

The Supreme Court has rejected appeals by the Obama administration and the nation's largest tobacco companies to get involved in a legal fight about the dangers of cigarette smoking that has stretched more than 10 years.

The court's action, issued without comment Monday, leaves in place court rulings that the tobacco industry illegally concealed the dangers of smoking for decades. But it also prevents the administration from trying to extract billions of dollars from the industry either in past profits or to fund a national campaign to curb smoking.

In asking the court to hear its appeal, the administration said the industry's half-century of deception "has cost the lives and damaged the health of untold millions of Americans."

The appeal was signed by Elena Kagan, the solicitor general, a couple of months before President Barack Obama nominated her to the Supreme Court. Special Report: Elena Kagan

Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest tobacco maker, its parent company Altria Group Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., British American Tobacco Investments Ltd. and Lorillard Tobacco Co. filed separate but related appeals that took issue with a federal judge's 1,600-page opinion and an appeals court ruling that found the industry engaged in racketeering and fraud over several decades.

In 2006, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that , concealing evidence that nicotine is addictive and lying about their manipulation of nicotine in cigarettes to create addiction. A federal appeals court in Washington upheld the findings.

At the same time, however, the courts have said the government is not entitled to collect $280 billion in past profits or $14 billion for a national campaign to curb smoking. The high court previously denied the government's appeal on that issue.

The companies argue that the government improperly used the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO law, against them. The racketeering law often is employed against the Mafia and other criminal organizations.

The companies also say the courts' decision to brand their statements about smoking as fraudulent unfairly denied them their First Amendment rights to engage in the public-health debate about smoking.

The administration said the money it seeks from the industry is commensurate with the harm it has caused.

The public health groups in the case are: American Cancer Society; American Heart Association; American Lung Association; Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights; National African American Tobacco Prevention Network and Tobacco-Free Kids Action Fund.

The groups are most interested in forcing the tobacco companies to pay for a wide-ranging education campaign to discourage people from taking up smoking and helping others quit.

In Other Supreme Court News Today:

  The Court ruled that the Constitution's "right to keep and bear arms" applies nationwide as a restraint on the ability of the federal, state and local governments to substantially limit its reach.

The court's conservative wing prevailed by a narrow 5-4 margin, but signaled that less severe restrictions could survive legal challenges.
The decision by Justice Samuel Alito said the Second Amendment right "applies equally to the federal government and the states."

Two years ago, in a ruling that applied only to federal laws, the court struck down a District of Columbia ban on handguns and a trigger lock requirement, declaring the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to possess guns, at least for purposes of self-defense in the home. Gun rights proponents almost immediately filed a federal lawsuit challenging gun control laws in Chicago and its suburb of Oak Park, Ill, where handguns have been banned for nearly 30 years.

  An ideologically split court ruled that .

The Christian Legal Society had sued to get funding and recognition from the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, whose policy said no recognized campus group may exclude people due to religious belief or sexual orientation.

The court on a 5-4 judgment upheld lower court rulings that CLS's First Amendment rights of association, free speech and free exercise were not violated by the college's decision to deny recognition and funding.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that CLS "seeks not parity with other organizations, but a preferential exemption from Hastings' policy."

In his dissent. Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the college's decision was aimed at preventing any freedom of expression "that offends prevailing standards of political correctness."

  The Court also announced it will enter into the nation's charged debate over immigration, agreeing to hear a challenge from business and civil liberties groups to an Arizona law that cracks down on employers who hire undocumented workers.

The justices on Monday accepted an appeal from the Chamber of Commerce, American Civil Liberties Union and others to a lower court ruling that upheld Arizona's law.

The measure requires employers to verify the eligibility of prospective employees through a federal database called E-Verify and imposes sanctions on companies that knowingly hire undocumented workers.

  The court refused to hear an appeal from the Holy See to stop a lawsuit that accuses the Vatican of transferring a priest from city to city despite repeated accusations of sexual abuse.

Sovereign immunity laws hold that a sovereign state - including the Vatican - generally is immune from lawsuits. But a judge had ruled that there was enough of a connection between the Vatican and the Rev. Andrew Ronan (who was transferred from Ireland to Chicago to Portland, Ore.) for him to be considered a Vatican employee under Oregon law; that ruling was upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California.

According to court documents, Ronan began abusing boys in the mid-1950s as a priest in the Archdiocese of Armagh, Ireland. He was transferred to Chicago, where he admitted to abusing three boys at St. Philip's High School. Ronan later was moved to St. Albert's Church in Portland, where he was accused of abusing the person who filed the lawsuit now under appeal. Ronan died in 1992.

  The court rejected an appeal by the publisher of a financial newsletter found guilty of securities fraud. Pirate Investor LLC (now known as Stansberry and Associates Investment
Research) and Frank Porter Stansberry had sold a report purporting to offer a "Super Insider Tip" relating to a still-unannounced deal between USEC, an American company that enriches uranium and the Russian government.

In 2002 Stansberry wrote a newsletter saying he had interviewed a company executive who told him to watch their stock on May 22; the executive later denied saying that, but the e-mail solicitation predicted USEC's stock price would more than double. Stansberry's company made hundreds of thousands of dollars from selling reports. Within two weeks trading in shares of USEC rose from 189,000 shares a day to an average of 3.3 million.

News organizations, including The Associated Press, said the prosecution is in violation of the First Amendment. But federal judges have upheld the conviction.

  The court struck down part of the anti-fraud law enacted in response to Enron and other corporate scandals, but said its decision has limited consequences.

Under the 2002 the Sarbanes-Oxley law, Congress created the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board to replace the accounting industry's own regulators amid scandals at Enron Corp., WorldCom Inc., Tyco International Ltd. and other corporations. The board has power to compel documents and testimony from accounting firms, and the authority to discipline accountants.

The justices voted 5-4 that a provision of the law violates the Constitution's separation of powers mandate. Sarbanes-Oxley will remain in effect, but the Securities and Exchange Commission now will be able to remove board members at will.

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